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Trapped in the story: "Don't Look Up" and the limits of climate narrative

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What are the stories we tell ourselves about climate change? 

Who are the heroes and the villains? When do our stories start and how do they end? 

Humans are story-telling creatures. Our brains absorb facts and cobble them into narratives, which then guide how we think and how we act. It shouldn’t be surprising that, when confronted with the totality of the facts about climate change, our story-telling mode would go into overdrive.

The new Netflix film “Don’t Look Up,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and a host of other Hollywood luminaries, is one kind of climate change story. In the film, the role of climate change (or COVID, or both) is played by a large comet poised to strike the Earth. A pair of scientists discover the threat and go about trying to warn the people and catalyze action, only to be mocked in the media, undermined by cynical politicians, and misunderstood by the public. Eventually, time runs out and life on Earth is destroyed. 

While the film has gotten rave reviews from many climate scientists and activists (“see, this is what it’s been like!”), I’m in no rush to see it. It feels a bit late in the game for satire in the climate change fight – as if the Cold War satire “Dr. Strangelove” (to which it has been compared) had been released after a brutal nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Union that killed millions. And the story line – brave scientists frantically try to warn corrupt institutions and an ignorant public about a dire threat as time runs out – is one that’s all too familiar, even if it’s being told in a new way by a star-studded cast.

As we flip the calendar to 2022, I find myself looking for new stories, which puts me in the company of poet and social critic Maggie Nelson, who addresses climate change in her 2021 book, “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint.” 

Anticipating “Don’t Look Up,” Nelson questions the usefulness and the accuracy of the disaster movie narrative as applied to climate change. 

“It’s tempting, when confronted with [the facts about climate change],” she writes, “to make recourse to apocalyptic fantasy, by which the whole human experiment (or planet) goes out in one painless flash and bang. Such fantasies relieve us from imagining, not to mention committing to, the hard work that mitigation and adaptation require.”

The real battle against climate change may be less a dramatic race against time to avert disaster and more of a day-to-day slog with no discernable end. Regardless of what climate “red lines” we cross or thresholds we plow through, every day’s actions matter. Nelson quotes climate journalist David Wallace-Wells: “the next decade could always contain more warming, and more suffering, or less warming and less suffering. Just how much is up to us, and always will be.”

That slog doesn’t necessarily make for good movies. Nor does it lend itself easily to “good guy/bad guy” narratives, or storylines in which the enlightened and educated “we” are rebuffed by an ignorant and selfish “they” who either fail to understand the threat or refuse to fall into line with “our” best ideas for how to solve it. 

Indeed, Nelson suggests that not only is it the case that “we” need to meet “them” where they’re at – as any good, effective organizer knows – but that “they” might have lessons to teach and things to say that “we” really need to hear. She writes:

Given that close to half the people in the United States have developed an attachment to climate denialism (and/or its twin, a me-first survivalism) so intense that some are willing to take up arms against decarbonizing*, we are going to need a lot of help and wisdom in navigating these differences. Many of these folks aren’t on the cusp of discovering a queer, multispecies sense of ecojustice. But they may come to feel that the freedom to not lose your home, your health, your livelihood, your food supply, or future possibilities for your children and the children of your children is also worth fighting for. They may also have things to teach us about freedom, care, and constraint that we don’t already know, even – or especially – when we already think we do.” 

Our stories about climate change – especially stories that put people like “us” in the role of hero and those unlike us in the role of villains or dupes – can actually hamstring our response to the threat. Not only because the most climate-conscious person in America relies, for the survival of their children and grandchildren, on the capacity for change of the least climate-conscious, but also because people who are less climate-conscious may have important lessons to share on resilience amid adversity, or living within constraints, or deriving meaning from things other than material consumption, that would be helpful in navigating our way out of our current predicament. 

Indeed, Nelson goes so far as to wonder whether our drive to tell stories about climate change is actually that helpful at all, suggesting that it might be valuable to “‘drop the storyline’ … all story lines, including ‘progressive’ ones” in our efforts to get a mental grip on the crisis.

“Dropping the storyline” might provide an opportunity to admit that when it comes to climate change, we are all “riding the blinds” (as Nelson titled her essay), not quite knowing where it is that we’re headed. And it might liberate us to see ourselves and others neither as heroes nor villains, inexorably bound either for victory or disaster, but rather as people called upon to act in ways that create “less suffering” rather than “more suffering” – a decision that provides all of us with infinite opportunities for freedom of choice each and every day. 

“Knowing that something is still ‘up to us, and always will be,’” Nelson writes, “can inject a measure of freedom into a situation that makes most of us feel throttled.” At the close of a year in which many of us felt “throttled” by spreading contagion and looming climate disaster, that message of our continued freedom to act is one we desperately need to hear. 

 

* I think she’s exaggerating about this, by the way. But as I wrote here earlier this year, getting off fossil fuels will mean leaving behind things and experiences that have meaning and emotional resonance to people, in addition to leaving some people unable to do the work that they’d done all their lives. Socio-technical transitions are wicked complicated and fraught and it doesn’t do anyone any favors to minimize that.

Photo: Thomas Hawk via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0